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After deficit year, Alerus Center poised to make a profit

UND football v Northern Colorado, Oct. 7, 2017photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 3
ND state Democratic convention, March 17, 20182 / 3
State of the city February 14, 2018. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald3 / 3

After sustaining an estimated $400,000 hit last year, the Alerus Center's management is working to make sure the venue's schedule is full and that it makes a profit for Grand Forks.

The facility plans to host 438 events this year, exceeding the five-year average of 422 events, Alerus Center general manager Anna Rosburg said. That would also trump last year's slate of 326 events.

If all goes as planned, the venue would collect about $5 million in revenue and spend more than $4.7 million, with a projected profit of roughly $236,000, according to its budget. Early numbers suggest the facility is on track to meet its goal, City Administrator Todd Feland told the Grand Forks City Council Monday night.

"I think the year is still young. It's hard to say what we are going to do in 2018," Rosburg, who works for the Philadelphia-based venue management company Spectra, said of attendance. "I think our attendance is going to be strong. I think it is safe to say that we are going to beat 2017."

In the nine months it has managed the venue, Spectra has focused on attracting new and diverse events, going after big-name concerts and finding creative ways to use space so it can host more than one group at a time, Rosburg said.

"We have a beautiful facility. We have a great market and a great community," she said, adding they are there to answer the question of how to elevate the Alerus Center experience. "It's going to be adding events, it's going to be getting more out of each event and it's taking care of the customers and clients we already have."

Blank calendar

Spectra took over managing the Alerus Center in July after the city fired Executive Director Cheryl Swanson and Assistant Director Bob LeBarron in 2016 amid reports of a hostile work environment.

Management anticipated the center would lose money last year since Spectra came in the middle of 2017 and inherited a mostly empty calendar, particularly on the arena side, Rosburg said.

The facility hosted one major concert. Last year's event tally was the venue's lowest since 2003, the earliest numbers available in the city's comprehensive annual financial reports.

The center saw 184,000 people walk through its doors, the second lowest attendance count in 15 years—the lowest was in 2015 with 170,576 visitors over 390 events, according to city data.

Unofficial numbers suggest the center's revenue was about $4.6 million last year but spent $5 million.

The center opened Feb. 10, 2001, but attendance and event numbers were unavailable in the financial reports.

Spectra wanted to focus on booking events for the 2018, marketing and rebuilding relationships, Rosburg said. This year, the company has booked three big-name concerts—country musician Thomas Rhett, heavy metal band Metallica and Five Finger Death Punch.

"I think we've got a great country (music) market and we'll continue to do country shows and pursue those," she said. "I think we have a lot more of a diverse group, a population we want to serve. I think providing those opportunities to see acts that maybe otherwise wouldn't have come to Grand Forks is really important to us."

'Aggressive' strategy

The center has worked in the past with the Greater Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau to attract non-concert events, but the partnership between the two entities seems stronger, CVB Executive Director Julie Rygg said. Both have worked together to attract new events, including a regional robotics contest. Spectra also has worked harder to promote and market events, Rygg said, including an increased presence on social media and in-house marketing to engage local businesses and improve guest experience.

The goal is not only to get events to come to Grand Forks but to attract attendees so clients will return in the upcoming years, Rygg said.

"They're contacting us as much as we're contacting them," she said, adding it's been a joy working with Spectra. "They've been incredibly aggressive."

Spectra already is planning for the 2019 year, Rosburg said. The keys to success is having a team that is passionate about filling up the building with visitors and events, making the center succeed and putting Grand Forks on the map as a regional entertainment center, she said.

"It's our job now to live that mission out," she said of the reasons behind building the Alerus Center.

The city's Event Center Commission is impressed with Spectra's work, Commission Chairman Matt Walkowiak said. Screens above the box office showing which ticketed events are on sale are full—last year they were mostly empty, save the spot for UND football. There were only a few days in February and March when there were no events this year, he added.

"The Spectra team and commission are working really hard not only to remain in the black but also to create economic impact for Grand Forks and the regions," Feland said. "I think they are well on their way to do that."

Walkowiak also said the Canad Inns, the hotel connected to the Alerus Center, has noticed an uptick in occupancy since Spectra took over.

A 0.75 percent sales tax approved by voters in 1996 to support the Alerus Center will sunset in 2029, meaning the facility must build funds to support itself in the future, Walkowiak said.

He, Rosburg and Rygg were both optimistic about the future of the center.

"The commission as a whole, you can just feel a sense of bustle," Walkowiak said. "So far what we see, we like."

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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